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Donnie Yen was supposed to have retired by now. He’s 59 years old and still working, four years after he said he’d hang it up. Good thing, too, as Yen’s performance in “John Wick: Chapter 4” was a highlight of that recent action blockbuster. Now American audiences get to see Yen direct himself, with some assistance from his “Big Brother” director Kam Ka-wai. Early retirement no longer seems likely for the newly revived “Ip Man” star.
“Sakra” is a sturdy and appropriately florid wuxia martial arts fantasy, adapted from genre progenitor Louis “Jin Yong” Cha’s serialized novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (1963-1966). Yen’s latest is also an exemplary pot-boiler, not just because of his stunt team’s reliably impressive contributions. Yen clearly put some work into transposing the wuxia novel’s romantic and often incredible conventions into a live-action movie. “Sakra” is not light on its feet, but it is a surprisingly well-realized star vehicle and adaptation.
As Qiao Feng, a respected leader of the Beggars’ Gang, Yen must defend his reputation (and life) after he’s wrongfully accused of murdering a fellow beggar. Qiao and the Gang pride themselves on their loyalty, so they talk a lot about how to honor each other and live responsibly. Qiao voluntarily retires when the Beggars’ Gang turns on him, if only so he can find the real murderer. During his quest for answers, Qiao befriends and eventually falls for Azhu (Chen Yuqi), a servant of the squirrelly and aggrieved schemer Murong Fu (Wu Yue). Qiao and Azhu hope to learn about their absent parents, whose mysterious lineage puts Qiao and Azhu at odds with their separate clans. Qiao wants to know if he belongs to the dominant Northern Song dynasty, like his fellow beggars, or the invading Khitan, who support the Liao dynasty. To achieve satisfaction, Qiao must take an army of trained fighters to the cleaners.
Qiao stands apart from Yen’s typically corny square-jawed heroes. He talks a lot about “integrity” and “morality” and goes to some lengths to act on his values, like when he stabs his limestone abs four times in order to save four of his elder Beggars’ Gang mentors from being punished on his behalf. Yen’s characters usually lead with their moral compass, which might be hard for Hong Kong fans to take given Yen’s unfortunate pro-Beijing politics. But what’s striking about Qiao, and “Sakra” in general, is how the movie’s stylized action scenes—replete with flying martial artists who occasionally shoot energy blasts from their palms—feel of a piece with the rest of the movie’s heightened drama.
Yen seems to have taken a page or two from co-producer Wong Jing’s playbook, as far as representing not only the surreal action but also the flowery, quasi-poetic prose of wuxia novels. Wong’s productions tend to be literal-minded translations of their respective genres’ cadences and quirks. Speaking to Hong Kong Cinemagic, Wong said that, when he worked with Stephen Chow on their star-boosting “mo lei tau” slapstick comedies, he encouraged Chow to mimic the body language of various anime characters.
A shameless magpie, Wong, and his influence feel weirdly relevant to Yen and his three credited co-writers’ understanding of the wuxia genre. (Yen also credits Wong with bringing “Sakra” to his attention) Rather than try to modernize the dialogue or update the visual language of Cha’s novel, Yen and his collaborators have made their characters speak and move like the protagonists of an unabashedly pulpy costume drama. They wistfully lecture each other about filial piety and social responsibility whenever they’re not practicing neatly labeled action moves, like the Powerful Vajra Palm. The action scenes are good, too, of course. Yen’s well-balanced combination of physics-defying wire stunts, dizzying camera movements, and computer-enhanced imagery sometimes makes “Sakra” look like lavishly animated panels from a comic book.
With “Sakra,” Yen has made a movie to his exacting standards. You might already believe that a long-haired Yen could decimate a battalion of heavies, launching them into the air like ragdolls. What “Sakra” adds to Yen’s repertory is a fully-realized character who, like his starch-stiff take on martial arts master Ip Man, doesn’t talk or carry himself like a normal person. Qiao drinks tea with the men he’s about to trounce, to show them that there are no hard feelings. He also sometimes laughs mirthlessly and proclaims stuff like, “I'm defending not only this land but also the righteous way of the world!”
Hongkongers might balk at Yen’s on-screen humblebrag preening, especially when Qiao laments, "The world has descended to chaos because of shameless people like you!” I can’t blame them, even if I was also moved by the conclusion of Qiao and Azhu’s romance subplot. Yen doesn’t exactly swing for the fences here, but “Sakra” still lands exactly where its multi-hyphenate star needs it to.
Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms on April 18th.
Donnie Yen as Qiao Feng / Xiao Feng
Yukee Chen as A Zhu
Liu Yase as A Zi
Kara Hui as Ruan Xingzhu
Wu Yue as Murong Fu
Eddie Cheung as Duan Zhengchun
Grace Wong as Mrs. Ma
Do Yuming as Bai Shijing
Ray Lui as Murong Bo